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Our point of departure with any forgiveness discussion should begin by delineating cultural and biblical forgiveness. Cultural forgiveness, usually framed as “I’m sorry,” is like an empty add-on at the end of a conversation with a peripheral friend: “Hey, let’s get together again!” We call it a Southern expression: something we say but do not mean. It’s a cultural courtesy conversational appendage that probably should be tossed into the miscellaneous file and labeled “Little White Lies.” It lacks force, authenticity, clarity, and authority. Biblical forgiveness is a different animal. It is full of divine power, authentic realism, and clarity that will not find satisfaction until the guilty person experiences release from their transgressions.
Biblical forgiveness comes from the judge of the universe. It does not begin on the horizontal level between two human beings, looking to mitigate conflict. Sin-releasing forgiveness starts on the vertical plane, that divine space where the Sovereign God waits for the contrite of heart to enter His sacred sanctuary, seeking release for missing the mark. The first step in biblical forgiveness is always between the offender who has sinned and the offended, and the Lord is the first and preeminent offended person. If you want to end well with forgiveness, you must begin well. If you’re going to experience release from any sin and all of the accompanying guilt and conviction that comes with a crime, you must make your requests known to God before you do anything else (2 Samuel 12:13).
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
With the primary offended person in view, the passage in 1 John is a great place to think about the act and process of forgiveness. The operative word in that verse is conditional—If we confess our sins to the Lord, we may receive forgiveness for our sins. The implication of the opposite would also be true: If we do not acknowledge our sins to the Lord, He will be faithful and just not to forgive us of our sins and not cleanse us from any unrighteousness. The condition for forgiveness hinges on whether the guilty person asks for forgiveness. A request for release must happen to experience release. We are not allowed to be sloppy in our forgiveness as though we can dismiss our sins by some other means.
To be forgiven outside of the parameters and power of the gospel would be a mockery of the gospel: Christ died for our sins (Romans 4:25). We must have the Lord’s judicial approval for the obliteration of our sins. Therefore, we can conclude that we must ask for forgiveness to experience forgiveness, and we must first ask the Lord to be free and clear of our offenses. We also see this condition of forgiveness statement made in Romans regarding our salvation. Just as we can’t experience forgiveness for sanctification sins without asking, we cannot receive salvation without asking.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
To confess means to agree with God about what we have done. We enter into the Lord’s presence through prayer and agree with Him about what we did wrong. A confession is a way to get on the same page with the Lord. After we agree, we may ask Him to release us from the penalty that we justly deserve (Romans 6:23). If we do not request an offended person to free us from our offenses, we leave the potential forgiver in a threefold quandary:
Fixing our mistakes is not a passive activity. It takes engagement from both the offender and the offended. The Lord does not remove our mistakes without this kind of biblical reciprocality. If we humbly ask for forgiveness, we can be joyfully released from what we did wrong, which affirms the purpose of the cross. Jesus Christ willingly paid for our sins, which was ample enough to remove any penalties we may have accrued. There is so much money in the bank, and we can have full access to as much of it as we want as long as we humble ourselves, acknowledge our need, and request the gift.
But be warned. The offended person is not allowed to throw money at anyone that he wants to arbitrarily. Similarly, we cannot stand at the foot of the cross and arbitrarily release a person from their crimes when they have not owned what they did or requested release from the offense. Forgiveness begins with God; forgiveness depends on agreement with God about what happened, and when the offender asks for forgiveness, he receives it.
Understanding this “God first” priority of forgiveness is imperative because if God does not release us from our sins, we cannot receive the horizontal forgiveness we may seek from others. It would be the height of arrogance to think any of us could receive forgiveness from a person when the Almighty Lord has not first forgiven us. My forgiveness-granting is biblically meaningless if the sinner has not been forensically, legally, and divinely released by the ultimate offended power. It would be like me telling a person that he is a Christian when God has not regenerated him.
“Hey, you don’t have to ask the Lord to forgive you of your sins. I’ll do that for you. Do you want to be saved? Great! You are saved! Go in peace.”
Imagine being at your local courthouse and a convicted felon hobbled by you in an orange jumpsuit and chains. Before the criminal enters the courtroom, you go to the person and release him from his crimes. He is joyful and appreciative that you paid his debt to society. He continues into the courtroom only to discover that the judge is not as accommodating as you were. He sentences the felon to life in prison. Because God has not forgiven the person, any pronouncement we make about him is irrelevant—unless all we are looking for is some form of partial cultural forgiveness to put the relational tension behind us.
If we sin against someone and ask them to forgive us, but do not ask God to forgive us, then we are not forgiven in the way we need forgiveness because we are still guilty before God. You could think of it like categories: The Lord is always the primary category, and everyone else is secondary. God is always the utmost offended person when sin happens, and until the offender reconciles that relationship, all terrestrial confessions will be inadequate. No one can grant forgiveness to us, as though we can be free from the sin committed if we have not asked God to release us from it.
This link in the sequence brings us to the sphere of confession. With the good Lord’s full pardon of our crimes, we are now ready to approach all the other people within our spheres of offense. Think about it like the same size circles that stack on top of each other. The first circle is the sphere of offense. We have to determine all the people that we have offended. Because God is always the offended party, He is always within our circle of offense. All sin offends God. No exceptions. But there may be other people within the sphere of offense.
Consider it like a group of people in white clothing standing on a sidewalk. As you pass by them in your vehicle, you hit a mud puddle and splash some of them with dirty road water. You go back to find out who all you dirtied by your actions. That is your sphere of offense. The people you offended—sphere of offense—should be the same number you want to confess your sin to—sphere of confession. God is always offended by your sin, and other people may be in the offense sphere. There will be other people not within your sphere of offense. There is no pressing need to let them know what you have done—at least, you should not seek their forgiveness.
Then there are times when you cannot ask a person to forgive you for what you did to them (Romans 12:18). Suppose you had a dysfunctional relationship with your father, who passed away. His death makes relationship reconciliation impossible. In such cases where transactional forgiveness is impossible, God provides grace. Ask the Lord to forgive you for the wrongs in that relationship while sharing your attitude of forgiveness with Him—a heart that wants to forgive and be free from what happened but cannot transact the forgiveness. In time you should be able to rest in His grace. You have done all that you can do (Romans 12:18).
When you are asking someone to forgive you, it is incumbent that you try to remove any doubt or speculation about the genuineness of your confession and your request for forgiveness. You do not want to make it harder for the offended person to forgive you. They are already struggling with what you did. Don’t add to that struggle by being casual or flippant about forgiveness. If your sin has broken you, you should be willing to do anything to make it right. (See Psalm 51:1-19 and Luke 15:17-24.) One of the ways you can do this is by bringing a clear and unassailable case against yourself regarding what you did. Here is a sample of what that could look like:
I know I have offended you. I have sinned against God and you. The Spirit of God has convicted me for what I did, and I cannot rest until I’m completely free from my transgressions. I’m so sorry that my sin has hurt you. I wish to take it back but realize I can’t undo it. I hope you can forgive me for my actions. I sinned when I [specific sin]. It did not honor the Lord’s name or bless you in any way. I throw myself at your mercy and will not be able to move forward until you grant me forgiveness. Will you forgive me?
While it’s not necessary to parrot this sample confession, it is essential to have the attitude that this confession and request for forgiveness communicate. Your confession must be pneumatic, as you and the Spirit of God collaborate on how you want to present your case against yourself to another person. You don’t want to be nonchalant, haphazard, flippant, vague, or rote. Make it as straightforward as possible for the offended person to forgive you. You can do this if your sin has genuinely broken you, which you will convey by asking them to release you from it.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).